In News Reports, Society on July 18, 2012 at 2:57 am

When I was a news editor, I was terrified of running foul of the courts. How far do you go in criticising a conviction or a sentence? Do you let people mouth off about a sentence being too light, too heavy, or to use that loaded word “unfair”? I wouldn’t even let through comments that one party is going to appeal the conviction or the sentence. Appeal first, THEN we publish. There’s another more prosaic reason: If you say you’re going to appeal,  it’s incumbent upon the media to report that you did NOT appeal. And tell readers why not… You know how many people say things in the heat of the moment in the aftermath of a case?? Too many.

The judiciary is  a strange animal (I’m not scandalising the judges with this metaphor, I hope!) I mean, you can slam the Infocomm Development Authority or that much-beseiged LTA for fines that are too paltry, but hey, careful with the courts because you might be in contempt! People in the media have heard the arguments before: Protect the integrity of the institution. Remember the judges can’t  defend themselves. I’m fine with the first, but the second…aaah, the judges haven’t been sitting  on their hands, have they? They have avenues too, and some have criticised outside comments during the course of hearings (I’m really, really  sorry but I cannot recall specifics beyond remembering turning pale whenever a court reporter returns to the newsroom with the judges’ jibes) There’s the CJ’s speeches at opening of the Legal year and other legal functions. So the judges aren’t quite poor defenceless creatures.

There’s this other thing that I used to worry about – subjudice. You know, giving details of some crime that hasn’t gone before the courts yet. I remember admonishments from the G when some  details were given away – not intentionally but neglectfully. The  reason was that we shouldn’t be influencing the judge before the case is heard. Frankly, I wouldn’t think that a judge would be influenced by what’s written in the press….I mean, this  is  not a jury system with ordinary laymen who can be swayed….But I would draw the line at convicting  a  person before a trial has begun or mid-way. Or calling a crime a  murder when it hasn’t been ascertained as such with all its legal implications. Someone died, my dear. He was killed. Could be  accident, could be suicide, could be murder. It’s  the courts’ business to decide.

Now of course, you get details on the Internet, video, photos and  all. And opinion too. The G would be hard-pressed to bring everyone to book for subjudice. In fact, plenty of times I thought the media would get into trouble for giving too much away but it seems that the G is more relaxed about this.

Actually, that’s  what I am not comfortable with: You never quite  know when the G will decide to draw the line, at which point, over what case.  So it’s natural to err on the side of caution: Say nothing at all and  you will be safe. Which is bad. If you want to say something, you better have some justification for doing so. Criticise the action, not the man. And don’t go generalising stuff from a single incident or event.

I think Alex Au went overboard calling the judiciary biased by using the Woffles Wu case as a jumping off point. As for him misleading readers with his analysis of the charges against Wu etc, frankly, I find  the whole  thing pretty complicated too. So Wu was charged under Road Traffic act because the underlying offence was not  serious, rather than the Penal Code. But the layman doesn’t care about his supposed drink driving  or speeding or that he hasn’t hurt or killed anyone. It’s the aftermath – the old man who took the rap for him (supposedly) – that bothered readers. It’s THIS ACTION that they find unconscionable. No amount of explaining by the  G about this section or that section or  this precedent or no precedent is going to wash with the public. Given the weight of public opinion, a heavier emphasis should be given to attempts/alleged attempts (I’m being careful here…) to cover up (allegedly) a (supposed) crime, no matter how big or small. It’s a signal for future such deceptions.

You know, I keep wondering  why no grounds of judgment was issued  on the Woffles  Wu case by the judiciary. I suppose the case is too small as  it’s  just a Road Traffic thing… Well, it is my considered opinion that there should be a judgment in light of public interest. Break precedent and tell the public how it came to be that Woffles got off with a fine.  Maybe address some points made by the public on treatment of rich and poor (yes, I know the judges will say all men are treated equal – but good to hear from them lah). Maybe  that will clear the air a bit.

I hope the judiciary isn’t scandalized by my comment. Because if it is, it’s my turn to be scandalized.

  1. Why can’t we question the integrity of the courts? It is funny how in the United States, everyone has the free reign to question anybody else’s integrity (including the president and the Supreme Court), and if anything the judiciary is still the strongest and most trusted of the main branches of government. I was quite encouraged to see our local Supreme Court throw out the AGC’s appeal to clarify the constitutional gap in the calling of by-elections.

    Alex Au’s analysis is flawed, as you said. Well, I don’t blame him for getting some things wrong in the heat of the moment. But you don’t earn anyone’s respect by your blanket approval of the status quo. You don’t have to accept it. But I guess you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have been employed by SPH for all those years.

    It is not us, as “the people”, who are beholden to any particular organ of the state, and in any case we already have to accept the written rule of law where it applies to criminal activity.

  2. Let’s face it, Alex is being targetted by the govt for being nothing more than ‘asking for more’ – being outspoken and daring to question the status quo. As per its habits, as in previous cases, whether it be JBJ or CSJ, the govt would bide its time and strike when an opportunity presents itself, however small and petty the issue may be. This was exactly what happened to JBJ and CSJ. You note that Alex was not even invited to some recent briefing where even less known bloggers were invited. That’s the govt propaganda machinery in action.

    Alex is an obvious target becasue of his obviously huge following due to his often highly competent and well researched analysis of issues. No govt likes to be expose for what it is, least of all the PAP govt.

    As you must be aware from Alex’s blog, the contempt law is considered archaic in most western countries, and in fact, do not exists in the US legal system. It is mostly retained and used in Asian/African to oppress the masses. Do you buy it when the AGC claim that without it the whole administration of justice in a state would breakdown? As if like people are going to run riot with it! A ludicrous exaggeration. Isn’t it reminiscent of the ‘extreme’ card often played by the govt when people asked for more help for the poor and elderly?

  3. From a writing perspective, why are you using the G.

  4. Waffling Woffles (WW) repeated the same offence – first in 2005 and then in 2006. Indeed, given the public interest in this matter, the court should give a written judgement setting out the Grounds of Decision for such a paltry fine for repeated offences.

    More interestingly, it would appear that police procedures were not adhered to as WW did not make the police report despite being the registered car owner at the time of both offences. His elderly employee was the one who made the false report and hence WW could not be charged for giving false info to the police which would be a more serious offence. MHA have not stepped up to the plate to shed light on this deviation from standard requirement. Why?

    Mr Wong Siew Hong from Law Soc is a lawyer. Therefore, he should know better. Yet he was merely reprimanded (instead of being charged) for contempt of court in his mishandling of the matter when Ravi represented Vellama Marie Muthu on constitutional law issues relating to Hougang BE.

    Alex Au is not a lawyer by training. Hence, some leeway with a lighter touch is justified.

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